Getting to EXPERT

The gaps in your documentation aren’t there because you haven’t consider a particular level of user; the gaps in your documentation are there because you haven’t considered how one level of user becomes another. How DO you get from Beginner to Expert?

The question above was prompted by a presentation I attend last week, given by Paul Sherman on behalf of the Scottish Usability Professionals’ Association, entitled: THE PERPETUAL SUPER-NOVICE.

The basic premise is:

the tendency of people to stop learning about a digital product-whether it’s an operating system, desktop application, Web site, or hardware device.

A simple example: Someone who has learned that you can cut and paste text in Word by using the Edit menu options and the application doesn’t support them learning how to do the same thing in a more efficient manner.

Many applications (and the documentation that supports them) is aimed at either getting from beginner to novice level, or getting from some kind of mid-level up to expert. There is a huge gap in application design (and, again, the documentation that supports it) around helping users get the most from their usage of an application.

That mid-level area is what Paul refers to as the Super-Novice:

in the absence of extrinsic motivation, it seems that many people stay novices or, at most, become a form of knowledgeable novice that I call the super-novice. Super-novices know a lot about the limited parts of a system they use regularly and almost nothing about the other parts

Obviously the presentation was focussed on usability and application design, but it got me thinking about how documentation, or perhaps we should be calling it supporting information, suffers in the same way.

It’s fairly easy to get into the mindset of the beginner; presume the reader knows nothing and assume a level of learning in which to frame the information. Expert level information is a little trickier but could be stated as specialist, or niche, information.

But what of the super-novice? If we want people to get the most from our applications (and we do, don’t we?) how do we enable the super-novices and help them become experts?

Paul touched on some of the aspects of web 2.0 communities, and how providing “achievement motivation” is a key method for enabling learning and helping build the “need for mastery”. At this point it is easy to see that traditional documentation, printed manuals or online help, will fail the user in this aspect. It simply can’t respond to the differing needs of the audience.

Of course there is still a requirement for those carriers of static information, but to really enable your users you need to start thinking beyond a simple push of information.

Looking at the current crop of social media networks and communities, it’s easy to pick out some common themes; there is always a core group of users who will soon become forum experts, reliable and helpful members of the group. These are the experts and the challenge is to help everyone else get to their level.

I’m still not entirely sure HOW one goes about that, but it’s clear that if this is an issue you can identify with, and that your audience acknowledges, then you need to start looking around for some new models of learning. The internet is full of them, just find a burgeoning online community and see how things work there and try and match it to your own audience.

The times they are a’changing, and those gaps in your documentation will only get bigger and soon, alongside the application, you may start to lose your audience. We need to consider those gaps, the line between A and B, and figure out how to help our users traverse it safely.


Paul writes on usability issues (and more) on his blog, and for UX Matters where the origin of the presentation can be found (and from which the quotes in the post were taken).